During the infancy of the American automobile industry, a countless number of brilliant independent thinkers created an empire on the shoulders of equally gifted independent thinkers. As an example, consider the early reputation for durability earned by Ford and Oldsmobile built automobiles. The reliability of these vehicles was largely the result of transmissions, gear boxes and other components manufactured by Horace and John Dodge.
While Ransom E. Olds and Henry Ford, as well as the Dodge brothers, sought complete autonomy for their companies, many manufacturers chose the path of least resistance. Some of them were quite successful as the producer of “assembled” cars, vehicles that were composed of parts supplied by numerous companies. In fact, an industry study initiated in 1916 indicated that approximately twenty-five percent of automotive manufacturers were producers of assembled cars.
To a large degree, these vehicles and the companies that produced them are overlooked chapters in the evolution of the American automobile industry. They also provide ample opportunity for speculation. Could the city of Jackson in Michigan remained as a hub for automotive related manufacturing if Mansell Hackett had succeeded in his quest to become the largest manufacturer of assembled cars in the world?
There were a multitude of advantages to the manufacturing of assembled cars. As an example, Ned Jordan launched his automotive empire in 1916 with only $800,000. This compares to the Dodge brothers that launched their company in 1914 with millions of dollars invested. Mansell Hackett cut costs further by purchasing many components from companies that had entered bankruptcy.
The initial success of Jordan exemplifies the welding of creative marketing, careful selection of quality components, and quality construction that resulted in a well-built “assembled automobile.” A Continental 7 N six-cylinder engine powered all models. Parish & Bingham supplied the frames. Axles and bearings were from Timken, the transmissions and clutch from Brown Lipe. Fedders supplied the radiators, Bosch the ignition components, Stromberg the carburetors, Firestone the tires, and Stewart Warner the vacuum fuel feed. Willard produced the batteries, the seat springs were by Marshall, and the semi elliptic springs by Mather. Bijur supplied the starter and lighting components.
Not all producers of assembled cars were as careful in the selection of components or their manufacture as the managers at Moon, Biddle, or Crow-Elkhart. More than a few companies saw this avenue as the means to an end, namely a quick buck either through acquisition of investors’ funds, short-term sales, or as a back door for the sale of other products.
As an example, Nathan M. Kaufman and Daniel W. Kaufman were both outspoken proponents of ball bearings. They also had a vested interest in Hess-Bright, a ball bearing manufacturer. Is it possible this association led them to produce the Car De Luxe? This vehicle utilized three ball bearings on the crankshaft, eight in the wheels, six in the axles, four in the steering post, five in the transmission, six in the gearbox, and one in the clutch!
Perhaps the most intriguing manifestations of assembled automobiles during the prewar era are those that resulted from the desperate efforts of established companies to stave off collapse or independent manufacturers’ creative utilization of resources to ensure maximum return on limited investment. Exemplifying this would be the relationship between Corbitt and Auburn, and latter Hupmobile, Graham-Paige, and Cord.
In 1935, to alleviate projected budget deficits, Auburn sold its 1934 body dies to Corbitt, an independent truck manufacturer based in Henderson, North Carolina. For Corbitt this allowed for a dramatic restyling of their 1935 and 1936 trucks and busses at a fraction of the normal cost.
In late 1938, Hupmobile purchased the tools, jigs, dies, and related equipment for the front wheel drive 810/812 Cord from the court appointed receivers of E.L. Cord’s former automotive empire. Necessary changes were made for the transformation to a rear-wheel-drive configuration. John Tjaarda, who was instrumental in the design of the first Lincoln Zephyr, revised the distinctive Cord front nose into something that was unmistakably Hupmobile.
Before serious production could commence, the company was financially devastated through lawsuits and tax liabilities. In a desperate effort to remain solvent, Norman de Vaux, general manager, formed a limited partnership with Joseph Graham of Graham-Paige. In this arrangement, Graham-Paige would manufacture the Skylark for Hupmobile in exchange for utilization of the dies and tooling to build a car of their own, the Hollywood. The inability of Hupmobile to pay for the Skylarks produced for the 1940 model year proved a cataclysmic financial turn for Graham-Paige. In September of 1940, that company announced cessation of automobile production.
The supercharged Graham Hollywood and the Hupmobile Skylark was the end of the line for both companies. It was also the closing chapter for the legendary Cord.
However, this was not the final chapter in the history of the assembled automobile, or the independent thinking they represent. It was, however, the end of an era.
Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America